To say that writer-director Kevin Smith's film TUSK is going to be "divisive" might require rewriting the definition of the word. It will likely divide Smith's fans who enjoyed the "earlier, funnier movies" from those who thought RED STATE was something wonderful because it strayed so far from the Smith status quo. It will likely divide horror fans too, only because the film's second half strays so far into comedy that the horror elements are almost lost, which is a shame because up until that point, they were working in spades. But I'm guessing those who maybe don't definitively fall into the categories of Smith or horror fans, people who just wandered into this film unexpectedly with no real agenda will be split as well, likely based on their tolerance to tonal shift and stomach for the grotesque.
I'm on the record as being a huge fan of films that don't feel the need to stay boxed into a particular tone. They tend to be more successful at surprising us, and considering how infrequently I'm ever surprised by film plots any more, it's a welcome feeling. That being said, TUSK essentially stops being a really solid, fear-inducing work with the introduction of a new character at about the halfway point, and never really goes back. In the process, momentum and good will are thrown to the wind in a defiant act of betrayal that is both bold and stupid (if one can be both at the same time, and I think one can).
In truth, TUSK begins with Smith at his funniest and in familiar territory. Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is recording an episode of his highly successful podcast (called the Not-See Party; get it?) with his sidekick Teddy (a fully adult Haley Joel Osment, the kid from THE SIXTH SENSE). Wallace's spin on the world is finding unusual people with equally odd stories to tell and making fun of them, and he's found one such individual up in Canada. So he plots a trip and heads up to Manitoba, leaving behind Ally (Genesis Rodriguez), his long-suffering girlfriend who is not happy with the somewhat cruel person he has become because of the show. She also hates his walrus-like mustache. But when Wallace goes to meet his latest subject, he's shocked to find out the guy committed suicide out of embarrassment caused by the very things that brought Wallace to him in the first place.
Desperate not to waste the trip, Wallace finds a room-for-rent notice posted in a bar from someone promising great stories from an old former sailor who has been around the world on adventures. Spotting an opportunity to salvage the day, Wallace visits Howard Howe (Michael Parks of RED STATE, the KILL BILL films, DJANGO UNCHAINED, WE ARE WHAT WE ARE), an eccentric man with many promised great stories and a great affection for the walrus species. The extended sequence in which the two men meet, get to know each other, while Wallace drinks tea is one of the great, slow-burn creepy moments of the year. The stories get gradually weirder, and it becomes clear that Mr. Howe's penchant for walruses is the result of being stranded on an island with one he named Mr. Tusk, who became his close friend. It is then that we realize Wallace's tea has been drugged, and before long he's passed out on the floor.
What happens to Wallace next is quite awful, but the film evolves (or devolves, depending on your feelings on the subject) into an exercise in body horror the likes of which it's safe to say the movie world has rarely seen. In an attempt to re-create his memorable time on that island, Howe makes a few body modifications to Wallace (with the help of practical makeup great Robert Kurtzman) that can't be unseen. In a moment of sheer fortune, Wallace is able to get ahold of a phone briefly enough to call both Teddy and Ally, and together the two begin the search for their mutual friend and head up to Canada.
At this point in the story, TUSK takes itself from bat-shit crazy to silly (which is not the same as funny). Consider this spoiler material, only in terms of uncredited casting, but the investigator that Teddy and Alley find to locate Wallace is one Guy Lapointe (credited as being played by Guy Lapointe, but really it's Johnny Depp in heavy makeup with a ridiculous French-Canadian accent), who spins a tale of a serial killer he's been tracking for years who does to his victims pretty much what is being done to Wallace. As these two worlds collide, the film effectively comes to a screeching halt in terms of any remaining dramatic tension.
I strongly recommend you stay through the end credits, during which you get to hear the Smith "SModcast" that birthed the story of TUSK, with Smith and producing partner Scott Mosier yucking it up as they make up an outrageous story that is, in many cases, word for word what happens in this film. It's an incredible origin story. And whether he meant it to be or not, Smith has made the first half of TUSK wonderfully gripping with both his writing and visual style. It's also absolutely gross, but that only adds to the power of the work. And then he throws it all away—or more specifically, Depp throws it away on his behalf—with barely realized acting. It truly feels like Smith didn't think he was worthy to give Depp direction and just let the actor run roughshod through his movie.
I can't think of a film in recent memory that started so strong and collapsed so completely by the end. Nevertheless, I'm still moderately recommending TUSK because its strengths just barely defeat its weaknesses. Long is actually is surprisingly good, being challenged as an actor in ways I don't think he ever has been, showing us a range that takes him from unapologetic asshole to sympathetic victim quite convincingly. And Park is, as always, hypnotic in his delivery. He stares right into your soul and makes your heart feel cold with his voice. When he moves from soothing storyteller to outright tormentor, it's terrifying and impressive.
There's just enough here to recommend the film to most; you probably know if this sounds interesting to you. If it does, I think you'll leave the theater marginally unscathed. I'll give it up to Smith, however. The guy pulls inspiration from the strangest places and turns it into something unforgettable. Believe me when I say that even if you hate TUSK, you'll have a tough time forgetting it.